Ben Folds seldom lets listeners forget that the piano is an instrument not just of melody, but of percussion. Way To Normal opens with "Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head)," a pounding, true account of an onstage accident that left Folds with "blood on the keyboard." Folds' world isn't a place for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. As always, even the softer tracks make an impact. His piano line quietly, busily chimes away in the back of "Cologne," but its prettiness does little to soften the impact of the breakup story it backs.
That track also provides one of the subtler moments on an album that could use more of them. "Dr. Yang" and "The Frown Song" take jaunty aim at, respectively, would-be spiritual seekers and the pampered privileged, but neither the tunes nor the barbs prove sharp enough to justify the obviousness of the attacks. (Elsewhere, the self-explanatory "The Bitch Went Nuts" is about as unpleasant as it sounds.)
Folds has always struggled to balance anger and sentiment, and when the formula works—as it did on nearly every track of Way To Normal's excellent predecessor, Songs For Silverman—he can be funny and affecting. Here, only a few moments stand out amidst the knee-jerk bitterness, none better than "Effington," a semi-sequel to Silverman's "Jesusland" in which Folds almost allows himself to be sweetly seduced by the promise of a quiet, normal life in the middle of nowhere. For once, he sounds like he's seeing both sides of a story, introducing shades of gray to an album that otherwise takes its cues from the black-and-white world at his fingertips.